The Benevolent Universe of Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan

By Feder, Don | The American Enterprise, April-May 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Benevolent Universe of Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan


Feder, Don, The American Enterprise


What is M. Night Shyamalan trying to tell us? Clearly, the writer/director of mega-hits The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs has something on his mind. More than any other popular director in America, Shyamalan deals with big ideas. Almost alone among his colleagues, he treats religion seriously and sympathetically, as opposed to the Hollywood norm of contempt and condescension.

Has it been only four years since Shyamalan took the box office by storm with The Sixth Sense? The supernatural thriller was the second most popular movie of 1999 (surpassed only by Star Wars: Episode I) and received six Oscar nominations.

The following year, he gave us Unbreakable, which took the super hero off the comic book pages and into the real world. (It begins with the intriguing hypothesis that comic books are the last remnants of an ancient way of transmitting knowledge, like Egyptian hieroglyphics.) Then 2002's Signs made Shyamalan Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter (Disney gave him a record $5 million to write the script for this science-fiction story) and America's most-watched director.

Shyamalan is a master entertainer--a cross between Stephen Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. But he is Spielberg for grown-ups, without the glitzy special effects and collection of lovable aliens, adoring androids, and time-traveling teens. In Shyamalan's universe, there is death, alienation, loss, and pain. But there's also hope, reconnection, redemption, and transcendence.

Audiences are entranced by his subtly defined characters, complex camera angles, signature devices (characters seen through their reflections in various objects), mounting suspense, plot twists, and surprise endings. He can scare us without resorting to graphic gore, and touch us without emotional overload. His films have substance that places them well outside the horror flick genre. "I hope when people see my name in connection with a movie, they think in terms of quality, emotions, power and excitement;" says Shyamalan. Millions of moviegoers do.

But Shyamalan has his detractors as well. In a review of Signs, Stephen Holden of the New York Times complained: The Sixth Sense "left me feeling manipulated by a spiritual huckster. And so does Signs."

The Village Voice and the New York Observer gave Signs a thumbs-down as well. Yet as critic Terry Teachout noted in Crisis magazine, "reviewers in such far-flung cities as Chicago, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Crystal Lake, Illinois"--in other words those writing for newspapers more connected to Middle America-"thought it was terrific." Leave it to the religion-phobic nihilism-loving critics of the Manhattan media to be offended by Shyamalan's search for higher meaning through film.

Secularist reviewers who disdain Shyamalan's religiosity are joined, in a classic case of Left meets Right, by some evangelical movie critics. These writers denounce what they regard as occult or New Age elements (ghosts, aliens, etc.) in Shyamalan's movies. Some of these critics fret that the director is trying to smuggle Hindu concepts into his work.

The man who was born Manoj Nettiyalu Shyamalan (Night is a literal translation of his middle name) in India on August 6, 1970 was raised a Hindu. He says he's a less pious one than his mother and father or wife. His physician parents brought him to America as an infant, and he was raised in an affluent Philadelphia suburb. In cameo appearances in three of his films he speaks completely unaccented English.

Shyamalan attended a Catholic parochial school. There, he earned the highest grade in his religion class, and apparently absorbed many elements of Catholicism (which regularly appear in his films). "The teacher got upset that I got the best grade and I wasn't a Catholic," Shyamalan reminisces.

Night (as his friends call him) is anything but an orthodox Hindu. "Faith is something very different than religion for me," Shyamalan told an interviewer for the Los Angeles Daily News in 2001.

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